Britain and America's pilots are blowing the cover on our so-called "humanitarian" no-fly zone

Royal Air Force pilots have protested for the first time about their role in the bombing of Iraq. Pilots patrolling the so-called no-fly zone in the north of the country have spoken angrily about how they have been ordered to return to their base in Turkey in order to allow the Turkish air force to bomb the Kurds in Iraq - the very people the British are meant to be "protecting".

The pilots say that, whenever the Turkish air force wants to launch attacks on the Kurds, the Turks are recalled to base and their radar is switched so that the targets will not be visible. One British pilot reported seeing the devastation caused by the attacks when he resumed his patrol.

The pilots agreed to speak, on a non-attributable basis, to Dr Eric Herring, the Iraq sanctions specialist at Bristol University. "They were all very unhappy about what they had been ordered to do, and what they had seen," he said, "especially as there had been no official explanation."

While British government ministers have repeatedly described the no-fly-zones as "humanitarian cover" for the Kurds, the pilots' unease has become an open secret in the United States. Last October, the Washington Post reported: "On more than one occasion [US pilots who fly in tandem with the British] have received a radio message that 'there is a TSM inbound' - that is, a 'Turkish Special Mission' heading into Iraq. Following standard orders, the Americans turned their planes around and flew back to Turkey. 'You'd see Turkish F-14s and F-16s inbound, loaded to the gills with munitions,' [pilot Mike Horn] said. 'Then they'd come out half an hour later with their munitions expended.' When the Americans flew back into Iraqi air space, he recalled, they would see 'burning villages, lots of smoke and fire'."

Last December, more than 10,000 Turkish troops invaded northern Iraq, killing untold numbers of civilians and fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK. British and American aircraft "protecting" the Kurds did nothing to prevent the invasion; indeed, most patrols were suspended to allow the Turks to get on with the killing. Inside Turkey, the Ankara regime has destroyed 3,000 Kurdish villages, displaced more than three million people and killed tens of thousands. Racist laws prevent Turkish Kurds from speaking their language; parliamentarians and journalists who speak out end up in prison, or assassinated.

The Blair government has said nothing about this, because Turkey is a member of Nato. Almost all Kurds applying for asylum in Britain - from Turkey and Iraq - have been refused. Jack Straw's new Terrorism Act bans the PKK, which has no history of violence in this country. This means that Kurdish activists resident in Britain are now at risk of being sent back to Turkey: to prison, or worse. In the past few weeks more than 1,000 political prisoners on hunger strike in Turkish jails have been attacked by the authorities, leaving 33 people dead. Again, Whitehall's response has been silence.

RAF pilots are gradually becoming aware of the dishonest power game of which they are a part, and that the no-fly zones have no basis in international law and provide no "humanitarian cover" for the Kurds in the north and the Shi'a in the south. Concern for these people was always a sham. In 1991, when President Bush Sr called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he was really inviting Saddam's generals to stage a military coup and install a more malleable dictator. The last thing he wanted was the ensuing popular uprising by the Shi'a in March of that year - which Saddam crushed with helicopter gunships that the US allowed him to fly, and while American commanders denied weapons and equipment to the rebels. An estimated 30,000 people were slaughtered. "We clearly would have preferred a coup. There's no question about that," said Bush's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft in 1997. The British commander in the Gulf war, General Sir Peter de la Billiere, said, apparently with a straight face: "The Iraqis were responsible for establishing law and order."

Eric Herring wrote to me: "Perhaps the most repulsive thing about the whole policy is that US and British decision-makers have exploited popular humanitarian sentiment for the most cynical Realpolitik reasons. They have no desire for the Shi'ite majority to take control or for the Kurds to gain independence. Their policy is to keep them strong enough to cause trouble for Saddam Hussein while ensuring that Saddam Hussein is strong enough to keep repressing them. This is a direct descendant of British imperial policy from the First World War onwards [and is about the control] of Iraqi oil . . . Divide and rule was and is the policy."

Recently, Richard Norton-Taylor disclosed in the Guardian that Britain's military establishment was concerned about the proposed new international criminal court. The generals complained that rules made in Brussels might "prevent British peacekeepers from carrying out their tasks effectively". Their real concern, and that of western politicians, was put by Michael Caplan, the former lawyer to General Pinochet, who questioned how Tony Blair would be able to defend himself were he charged with bombing targets in Kosovo knowing that civilians would be killed.

When he was the Foreign Office minister responsible for Iraq, Peter Hain wrote to the New Statesman, describing as preposterous the very suggestion that he, and other British ministers directly complicit in the atrocious embargo against Iraq, might be summoned to appear before the new court.

We shall see.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo